We Actually Can Protect Ourselves

The virus is spreading but not nearly as rapidly or as widely as the fear it arouses. As Elisabeth Rosenthal writes in Sunday’s Times, there is a simple, cheap and effective defense against it:  “Wash Your Hands.” (see article)

Basing her experience as a doctor but also a mother who was in Beijing with her children during the SARS epidemic, she points out that frequent hand washing is an effective means of protection against all forms of infection: “No one got SARS,” she reported.  “But more than that, the stomach bugs and common colds that are the bane of elementary schools all over the world disappeared as well.”

So why is the fear so great?  No doubt the media, relentlessly searching for news to engage readers, has inflamed public concern.  Reporters and editors may claim that they are simply reporting what is happening, but no news sells as well as bad news, and fear is a reliable way to attract attention.

But the underlying reason is that we have all come to feel dependent and vulnerable in the modern world.  Epidemics – like hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and other natural disasters – sweep through our ordered world, wreaking havoc, and we have become dependent on government to protect and rescue us.  That is as it should be, since we cannot individually protect ourselves from catastrophes on such a scale.

But we have also lost a lot of trust in the organizations we do usually turn to.  Are they telling us the truth, or just what they want us to believe?  Does our government really care about our welfare?  Perhaps the drug companies see an opportunity to reap profits from extra sales of Tamiflu, or other medications.  At the more paranoid end of the scale are such thoughts as, perhaps, the government helped bring the epidemic about with lax safeguards, or is actually trying to obscure the existence of weapons of mass biological destruction.

We are dependent on our public agencies, to the extent, often, that we have lost  the knack of doing what we can to protect ourselves.  We tend to think that if our organizations cannot or will not protect us,  then we must resort to drastic measures.  We must flee or withdraw from life, while we start to consider who is to blame for our misfortune.  As Dr. Rosenthal reminds us, we easily forget what we can do ourselves.

This is the story behind the story.  Yes, Swine Flu is a worry, and we should know what we can about how it is spread and how to treat it.  But perhaps we need to worry also about our worry.  At least, we can try to think about the fears so easily aroused, what we don’t know we know about our ever-present vulnerabilities and suspicions.